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Sermon: Words & Deeds of Prophetic Women & Men

The talk-radio ranting and Fox News fulminating on the right, the gnashing of teeth and temptation to despair on the left and center-left make me look for inspiration to those brave people who changed history and hearts by their words and deeds.  So, in the wake of the recent Massachusetts election and reactions to the President’s State of the Union address, I offer this old sermon.

Sermon from M. L. King Sunday, January 20, 2008,  Minnesota Valley UU Fellowship


For the gift of life and the gift of this new day, let us be grateful and let us rejoice.  On a day of deep cold, we gather in this place for the warmth of companionship, the shelter of community; a time of rest, reflection, and renewal in silence, song, and the spoken word.  May our gathering together enlarge our souls and renew our commitment to the human values we hold most sacred.  Let us rejoice at this time we have together.  Amen.

Sermon Part I

Today’s sermon is one in a series about the Sources of our tradition of liberal religion.  Of the seven mentioned in the bylaws of the Unitarian Universalist Association, the second source reads:  “Words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion and the transforming power of love.”

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. has been one of those prophetic people.  He was born 79 years ago last Tuesday and murdered at the age of 39.  By his own account, he had an easy and fulfilled life growing up, with concerned and loving parents and “no basic problems or burdens.”[i] He wrote that he sailed through all stages of his education, ending with graduate school in theology, and became a Baptist preacher like his well-regarded father.  However, in 1955, as a new minister in Montgomery, Alabama, he became the president of Montgomery’s organization behind the boycott of the segregated bus system.  The boycott lasted over a year.  From the start King and his family received threats by letter and phone call.  The hostile threats increased and he began to take more of them seriously.  He later said: “I felt myself faltering and growing in fear.”  One night, when his wife was asleep and he was dozing off, “the telephone rang.  An angry voice said, ‘Listen, nigger, we’ve taken all we want from you.  Before next week, you’ll be sorry you ever came to Montgomery.’”

King said: “I hung up, but I could not sleep.  It seemed that all of my fears had come down on me at once.”  He got up and walked the floor, then went to the kitchen and “heated a pot of coffee.  I was ready to give up.  I tried to think of a way to move out of the picture without appearing to be a coward.  In this state of exhaustion, when my courage had almost gone, . . . I bowed over the kitchen table and prayed aloud:…. ‘I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right.  But now I am afraid.  The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they too will falter. I am at the end of my powers.  I have nothing left. I’ve come to the point where I can’t face it alone.’”

Then, King said, he experienced the presence of the Divine. “It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice, saying, ‘Stand up for righteousness, stand up for truth.  God will be at your side forever.’  Almost at once my fears began to pass from me.  My uncertainty disappeared.  I was ready to face anything.  The outer situation remained the same, but God had given me inner calm.”

Three nights afterward, their home was bombed, but King later said it did not remove his strength and trust.  When I read this passage, it became understandable to me that King’s favorite Gospel hymn was “Precious Lord, Take My Hand.”  It’s in our gray hymnal at #199.  I invite you to rise as you are able as we sing this hymn in the spirit of solidarity.

Hymn: #199:  “Precious Lord, Take My Hand”  Hear it at

Sermon Part II

It has been written that the social purpose for leaders and institutions of religion is to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable.  This is the role of the prophetic person—to help the hurting and speak up for the oppressed, even if it creates tension or makes us uncomfortable to do so.  It nearly always makes me uncomfortable to do so.

In February of 2007 I was recruited to be part of a delegation of religious leaders and union organizers to the airport in San Jose, California, where I was living.  Our purpose was to voice concerns and make requests about the treatment and wages of workers for a company called Aviation Safeguards.  This company is a contractor for the airlines, and its workers do not have union representation.  These are the non-airline employees who check in baggage at the curb, take passengers in wheel chairs to their flights, and check our ID at the start of the line to the x-ray security area.  They make low wages and have no health insurance, except for a plan with premiums they cannot afford.  A few have been there for nearly 20 years, and their pay has barely increased.  Some had begun union-organizing activity, and had been intimidated for it.

Our delegation met in the baggage claim area to confer about our purpose and plan.  Before heading up to find the company manager, we held hands in a circle and someone led a prayer.  From afar, it may have looked as if we were praying for lost luggage. I was wearing a black shirt, white clerical collar and a dark suit. I do this for demonstrations in order to be recognized as a clergyperson, to show that religious people are bearing witness to the cause at hand.  We found the manager and asked for a commitment that he and his firm would not interfere with union activities. After all, it’s the law.  He gave us that commitment. Weeks later, however, stories came to us of unfair treatment as retaliation. Some had had their hours cut, had been denied vacation requests, or had been let go. One was fired while tending to a family member having surgery.

So, we went back.  Six weeks later the union and the Interfaith Council held a demonstration outside the airport, near the taxi pickup area.  In spring sunlight we sang songs and heard speeches in English and Spanish.  A few of us prepared to go in the terminal to confront the manager.  The crowd prayed over us and wished us well.  I needed it!  This was a task that I had been talked into, not one I’d looked for. With me was the pastor of a conservative African American congregation. This took place during the Jewish Passover, and we carried with us a small basket of horseradish root—bitter herbs to give to the boss.  Along with us were a few off-duty workers and a member of the staff of our local State representative.

Inside the terminal, we found the Aviation Safeguards manager standing by the line of people waiting to go through the X-ray security line.  We introduced ourselves and started to voice our concerns about the workers.  He barked at us, “Get back behind that line. Arriving passengers come down this aisle.”  We moved back, but asked him if he would meet with us.  He said:  “I know all I need to know.”  From 15 feet away, my clergy friend spoke loudly, voicing our concerns about the workers.  The manager pretended not to hear.  The departing travelers passing through the security line did hear us. I said little and felt rather shy, but my friend was eloquent and powerful.  He announced we had brought an offering of bitter herbs to leave with the company; he said it recalled the oppression of the Hebrew children working under Pharaoh.  After a few minutes he stopped talking.  I revved up and spoke, repeating the same themes.

A few times we drifted back into the aisle, and the manager yelled:   “Get back, move over there.” We finished our pleading, went down to the baggage claim area, and met up with a couple of young union organizers.  Two police officers came up, asked us for our ID’s, and asked what we had been up to.  We explained why we were there.

My friend inquired “Why have you been sent to talk to us?”

“For causing a public disturbance,” an officer said.  I thought, “I wonder if I’m going to get arrested.  Do I want to get arrested?”

“Are you detaining us?”  my colleague demanded.   Uh-oh, I thought. “No, we’re asking you to wait for the sergeant.” This turned out to be a great opportunity to explain the issue to more people, and we did.  As I waited, I told the officers that we were standing up for the workers as they were standing up for themselves.  Soon the city’s manager on duty for the whole airport came to see what the problem was.  I told him about the intimidation the workers had faced, as well as their low wages.  This was news to him, so he said he’d ask Aviation Safeguards about it.  Then the sergeant showed up.  In calm but firm tones he told us we should have stayed outside the airport at the union rally, in an approved area.  I was calm too, and explained why we had come inside. Then he let us go.

That morning at the airport was hardly a risk of my safety or career, merely a donation of my time and presence. Bearing witness to the struggles of others may not call for much courage, but our presence can encourage them as they take real risks to improve their lives and their communities.

Had I gone to jail that day, I would have followed in the footsteps of many people.  In the Interfaith Council I knew old Catholic priests who couldn’t remember how many times they’d gotten  themselves arrested.

In our faith tradition, the most famous person jailed for taking a stand is Henry David Thoreau.  He was born in 1817 in Concord, Massachusetts.  It was a Unitarian environment in which Henry David grew up and was educated, including Harvard College.  Unitarian minister and author Ralph Waldo Emerson was Thoreau’s friend and spiritual mentor.

Thoreau got a job as a schoolteacher but resigned in protest of the expectation for teachers to flog their students. When he was 29, he was jailed for having refused for two years to pay the poll tax.  His first refusal was to protest that poll taxes prevented the poor from voting, including free African Americans.  His second refusal, after which he was picked up by the authorities, was to protest this country’s invasion of Mexico the same year, 1846.  It was a terrible war, whose goal was to take over Mexican territory for American interests.  That’s how we got New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Nevada and California.[ii] It was based on exaggerations and trumped-up accusations of Mexican aggression. Thoreau said the war was an example of a few people “using the . . . government as their tool . . .” for their own profit.  He resisted an evil system by withholding taxes that funded it.

It’s true that Henry David spent only one night in jail, but “very few people went to jail on principle in the mid-nineteenth century,” according to author Paul Hawken.[iii] Eighteen months later Thoreau gave a lecture about this.  Though famous as the book Civil Disobedience, his words were not published under this title until 1866, after Thoreau’s death.  His original title was more assertive:  “Resistance to Civil Government.”[iv] His lecture included the word civil only four (4) times but used the words disobedience and obedience not once!  His word was resistance!

Thoreau’s example influenced Mohandas K. Gandhi, an Indian leader of nonviolent resistance, first as a lawyer in South Africa where he lived under Apartheid, and then in his own country of India as the leader of the struggle for independence from Britain.  Ghandi and his followers knew the insides of many jail cells.  They knew the feel of clubs, fists and batons on their bodies.  What Thoreau modeled as a moral imperative of nonconformity for any person, Gandhi made into a tool for a mass movement. Gandhi later described the underlying principle as Satyagraha [SATYA-greh], which means “holding to the truth” in Hindi. Ghandhi called it “truth-force.” Sometimes he called it “love force.”  As a three-step instrument of change, “truth-force” entails protesting an unjust law, and if it is not changed, breaking the law, and then accepting the consequences of breaking the law.[v]

Ghandi’s example had an influence on the African American Civil Rights movement.  In Montgomery, Alabama, a young civil rights worker named Rosa Parks was well trained in nonviolent resistance tactics. One of the many segregated institutions in the American Apartheid of the South was the public transit system.  One day in 1955 Rosa entered a Montgomery bus from the front door, which was forbidden to blacks.  The driver dragged her off.  Some time later after a long’s days work, she entered the same bus, driven by that same driver.  She took a seat in the Negro section, in the back of the bus. It was crowded, so when a white man not could find an open seat, he told Rosa to stand and give up her seat.  She refused, and the bus driver had her arrested.  The result was a protest by the black community and a boycott of the public transit system.  It lasted over a year!  Martin Luther King, Jr. was 25 when, unexpectedly, he was nominated and elected to head the organization. At first, the King family had guns and armed guards in their home; after all, the couple had a two-week-old baby girl.  Bayard Rustin, a friend and leader, insisted that this was unacceptable—nonviolence meant no use of guns, even for self-defense.  Glenn Smiley, a Methodist minister, gave King three books:  The Power of Nonviolence, by Richard Gregg, Gandhi’s Autobiography, and Civil Diobedience, by Thoreau.   After the boycott, King gave credit to all three books for their influence on the boycott.

Such examples of courage and sacrifice can be daunting to us, even if we care deeply about fairness, justice and human dignity. As we heard earlier in the reading from Dr. King, the injustice and violence of the world can make us feel vulnerable and weak.

It’s normal to be afraid to stick our necks out, and understandable.  Somehow, though, ordinary people have done just that. Perhaps their fears get overtaken by their frustration, and they stand up to demand what they know is right.  Perhaps they are filled with a spirit they did not expect.  Perhaps they are buoyed up with courage they believe comes from a source outside them, whether it be from the Divine or from the strength of beloved community. Emerson’s book Nature inspired Henry David Thoreau with its concept of nature’s mutual dependence and inter-connectedness.  From this, Thoreau drew the principle of human kinship.  He was grounded by the idea of human inter-connectedness.

So many of the prophetic people we admire seem to speak from a deep grounding in a religious tradition, spiritual practice, or value system. Whether orthodox, secular or somewhere in between, even with non-stop turmoil around them, such people seem to know their center and return to it for strength.

What does this mean for those who are reluctant radicals, or not radical at all?  What about those of us whose comforts, personal commitments or fears hold us back from all-out activism?  As a shy activist myself, I can think of a few things.

We can be there for others, for those who call for dignity for themselves and their loved ones.  We can listen, and be present to those who need encouragement.  We can lend our voices to the civilians in other lands who live under oppression or live in fear of military attack—by our own country.  Without favor to any politician or party, we can raise tough questions about justice and fairness.  Whether with our taxes refused, money given, letters written, placards of protest held high at busy intersections, or time contributed, we can refuse to participate in unjust or deadly systems. We can lift up the human values that we hold sacred.

This is of primary importance—to ask:  What grounds us and empowers our work?

It’s not guilt, and not self-sacrifice either.  Feelings of guilt do not ground us.  They do not empower us or enlarge our sense of self.  What calls to you?  What gives you courage?

Speaking in 1967, Dr. King explained the reason for his two decades of prophetic ministry.  He said:  “I must be true to my conviction that I share with all humanity the calling to be a child of the living God. Beyond the calling of race or nation or creed is this vocation of kinship.”[vi]

For Gandhi,  it was truth-force or Satyagraha. Sometimes he called it love-force.

According to Unitarian Universalist professor of religion Sharon Welch, what empowers those of us who are better off to work for justice for those who are oppressed must be an expansive sense of love.  Welch writes:  “[Love] is far more energizing than guilt, duty or self-sacrifice.  Love for others leads us to accept accountability (in contrast to feeling guilt).  [It] motivates our search for ways to end our complicity with structures of oppression.  Solidarity does not require self-sacrifice but an enlargement of the self to include community with others.”[vii]

Solidarity means that we do not look the other way.  We don’t let others look the other way.  For example, as Paul Hawken notes, in the American South, when segregation was maintained by the power of law and by the terrorism of lynching, “in every community, … poor whites took it upon themselves to be enforcers of the … system while the middle class averted its eyes.”[viii] Martin Luther King, writing in his letter from the Birmingham Jail, asked people not to look away, and not to shy away from the tension that comes with change. He wondered whether “the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the [member of the racist organization], but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice.”  (85)

Like so many others who do care, I have personal commitments, I am busy, distracted. Yet sometimes I get involved and engaged; I do something.  Almost always it’s because I’ve been invited; someone has asked me to go.  I show up, and then I learn. I meet people and learn what their lives are like and their goals and hopes.  I see the courage required to stand up for oneself and for others.  This inspires me.  It moves me to show up again.  I learn that I have so much to learn—about myself, my world, my neighbors.

Henry David Thoreau said:  “[It] matters not how small the beginning may seem to be:  What is once well done is done forever.”

Martin Luther King said: “The time is always ripe to do right.” He must have intended these words for those of us who peer out of our comfort zones, wanting a better world and waiting for the time to act. Maybe this is a mantra for those times when we are invited to show up, or just urged to listen.  Maybe it’s a mantra to use to overcome shyness and ask another to come along with us: “The time is always ripe to do right.”

Let us all move forward into life, encouraged by those whose deeds and words have improved our world and enriched our lives.  Let us be centered, grounded, aware and connected. May we nurture our kinship with all people and enlarge our own souls.

May it be so.  Amen.

[i] “Our God Is Able,” a sermon in Strength to Love by Martin Luther King, Jr. (Philadelphia:  Fortress Press, 1981), p. 113-14.  All quotations in Part I of the sermon are from these pages.

[ii] Blessed Unrest by Paul Hawken (New York: Viking, 2007), p. 77.

[iii] Blessed Unrest, p. 76.

[iv] Blessed Unrest, p. 76.

[v] Blessed Unrest, p. 78.

[vi] Address given by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to a meeting of Clergy and Laity Concerned at Riverside Church in  New York City, April 4, 1967.

[vii] A Feminist Ethic of Risk, by Sharon D. Welch, Fortress Press, 1990, p. 172.

[viii] Blessed Unrest, p. 81.


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